How Much Protein do Athletes Need?
Is more protein always better?
Is more protein always better?
Protein is an important nutrient for athletes that facilitates recovery and adaptation. Taking in the right amount of protein is key to gaining these benefits and maximizing the benefits from training.
Protein is a nutrient made of many individual amino acids joined together like a chain. Everyone needs to eat protein on a day-to-day basis to remain healthy, because the amino acids from protein are needed for a variety of bodily functions. Athletes and people doing regular exercise training need higher amounts of protein to facilitate recovery than the general population needs to stay healthy. The amino acids in protein are used to repair damage that occurs to muscles during training, which allows them to recover and adapt, better prepared for the next workout. This process (known as ‘muscle protein synthesis’) is central to recovery and adaptation, and it requires enough protein to be eaten in one sitting to maximize it.
Making sure daily protein intake is adequate was the approach for many years. The advice was geared towards preventing deficiencies. In recent years, however, this has shifted towards optimizing the intake for best function. Athletes (and also the average person) is not just looking to prevent a deficiency, they want to know how much they need for optimal function. The recommendations for protein intake are different for different groups:
Many endurance athletes have higher fueling intakes (will consume more food) and will automatically also have high protein intakes. In reality, meeting this target of 1.2-1.6 g per kg is not a problem for the majority of endurance athletes and many will exceed this on a daily basis. However, it has also become clear that it is not just the amount of protein that is important, but also the types of protein, the timing of intake and the amount of protein per meal.
To trigger muscle protein synthesis, which is a short-term process lasting a few hours, protein should be consumed on a relatively regular basis and in amounts sufficient to start the process. For most people around 20g of a high-quality protein – such as whey protein – is probably enough (sometimes 0.03 g/kg is suggested). If eating a meal with a range of higher and lower quality protein sources, around 0.4 g of protein per kg of body weight (28g for a 154 lb. (70kg) person) may be sufficient. This amount is slightly higher than the amount we need if we eat an isolated high-quality protein. Ideally, these protein-containing meals should be spread out and eaten every 3-5 hours and should add up to a total of 1.2-1.6 g per kg of body weight per day. Although 20-30g per meal is probably best, if this isn’t feasible, a smaller amount such as 10-15g will still have an effect and benefit, just a smaller one, which can probably be made up for by reaching enough protein over the whole day.
Although it is possible to eat too much of certain nutrients, protein does not seem to have any negative health effects in healthy people, even when eaten in large amounts. Protein is often associated with being a nutrient for building muscle, which could (in theory) be a concern for some endurance athletes who are frequently looking to minimize mass. However, protein alone does not lead to increases in muscle size or weight unless combined with resistance training (e.g. lifting weights). Much like protein is needed to build new muscle when lifting weights, endurance athletes need protein for their muscles to adapt and become more efficient and aerobic for their training. The type of training will determine how the protein is used. Endurance training will result in improved quality of the muscle and a greater ability to use fuels. Strength training can increase muscle mass. The bottom-line is that one of the most important factors is eating enough protein during the day, or by consuming a blended recovery protein powder. However, optimizing the type of protein and the timing of intake may further stimulate protein synthesis and this will help recovery, but especially longer term adaptation. Because this effect is mostly longer term it is important to “get your protein intake right” as many meals as possible.
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